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Friday, August 8, 2014

3 Tips to Make a Boring Plein Air Subject Fun

"Lançon de Provence" - oil on linen - 8x10" - purchase

Here's the scene I was painting from.

Nuthin' to Paint Here

How many times have you gone out to paint plein air and found there was simply nothing that interesting to work from?

I was in Provence in July, and one day my painting companion Kaye and I drove around all day on a quest to find something great to paint. The light was overcast and flat, we didn't know the area at all, and we just kept turning corners and running into underwhelming subject matter.

These times are an opportunity to really tap into your creativity.

A Bit of Inspiration and Full Permission

What I've noticed in choosing subjects, both from life and from photos, is that my gut tells me if there's something there first, and then I start exploring from a technical perspective.

If the volume is turned way down on my gut message, what's needed is a willingness to be in exploration, and full permission to make shit up. You want to use the scene as a jumping off point and then let your creative muse take the ball and run with it.

Get Curious

Roll up your sleeves, put your painter brain on, and look through the the lens of possibility. If you feel even a glimmer of inspiration, ask yourself: "What's here that I can work with?"

In the scene above, here's what I saw that I could push to create interest:
  • lots of depth
  • a zig-zagging pattern of diagonals leading into the distance
  • a warm foreground and cool background
  • a variety of shapes/sizes to arrange in interesting ways
  • a balance of weight on the foreground right answered by the background mountain


Since the scene wasn't especially compelling, I used brushwork and colour in an expressive way to spark my sense of playfulness, and followed where it led. If it seemed like a fun move, I went for it to see where it would go.  

The best thing about a day like this is that there is little expectation of a great outcome. It's an opportunity to just play with paint, letting each brush stroke lead you to the next with no specific end in mind.

"Painting from nature is not copying the object; it's realizing one's sensations." - Paul Cezanne

Upcoming Plein Air Workshop Adventure

Stephen Quiller and I will be co-leading a unique plein air workshop this September. Carrying on the annual tradition that Bob Genn and I created 5 years ago, we are taking a group of painters on a fabulous adventure heli-painting in the Purcell Mountains of BC, Canada. 

The 4 day workshop starts with a full day of plein air instruction in the gorgeous Rockies of Banff, where Stephen and I will be giving 6 hours of hands-on instruction covering all the essential elements  needed in order to get the most out of this 3 day heli-painting experience.

It's a super cool opportunity that will truly flex your plein air painting muscles. You'll fill your tool kit with all kinds of tips and techniques for tackling outdoor painting, and bring home a wealth of great reference material, inspiration and memories.

Follow this link for more details and registration info.

Click the link below to see a mini heli-painting slideshow:
Heli Painting Photos
(Note: You may need to give the page a moment or two to load).

Feel free to contact me directly if you have questions about this trip:
Phone: 403-763-9035


  1. For sure you were successful as I agree the scene showed little promise outside of lots of inventiveness. Plein air painting stinks, but supposedly it makes one a better painter??????

  2. What a great article - so much to think about. I will definitely save this one. Thank you!